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CONFRONTING THE DROPOUT CRISIS IN CALIFORNIA: Conference Convenes Researchers on Dropouts, Hopes to Inform a Public That Is “Largely Unaware” of the Problem

"Large urban school districts in California have become 'dropout factories,' " said Gary Orfield

California’s misleading and inaccurate reporting of dropout and graduation rates has left the public “largely unaware of this educational and civil rights crisis,” according to a report that emerged from a recent conference, “Dropouts in California: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis.” Convened in March by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the conference highlighted the fact that California reports a robust 87 percent graduation rate while in fact only 71 percent of California high school students graduated in 2002, and graduation rates for blacks (57 percent), Latinos (60 percent), and Native Americans (52 percent) were much lower.

Summarizing graduation rates from multiple researchers who appeared at the conference, the report provides an in-depth look into graduation rates at the state, district, and school levels. At the state and district levels, Chris Swanson of the Urban Institute used his Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI)2 to determine the state graduation rates listed above. He found that graduation rates among male minority students were even lower-50 percent for black students, 54 percent for Latino students, and 46 percent for Native American students. White students graduated at a rate of 78 percent. Swanson also examined California’s ten largest school districts and found graduation rates that ranged from a high of 93.9 percent, for San Juan Unified School District (USD), to a low of 45.3 percent for Los Angeles USD, the second largest school district in the country.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a method for analyzing data and identifying high- and low-performing high schools.3 Led by Robert Balfanz, the researchers used school-level data to analyze the rate at which students are able to pass from grade to grade. These calculations allow them to identify California’s “dropout factories” in addition to those schools that beat the odds and graduate a higher than expected percentage of their students.

Under the Hopkins method, schools with high percentages of successful passage to the next grade are labeled as having “high promoting power.” Alternatively, schools that struggle to keep minority students in attendance and experience high rates of dropouts have “low promoting power.” According to Balfanz, schools have “low promoting power” if the freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time students reach their senior year.

In two-thirds of California’s high schools, Balfanz says, graduation is not the norm-at least 60 percent of the freshman class will no longer be in school by what should have been their senior year. In these schools, 40 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, but less than half of these schools receive Title I funding. (Nationwide, only 5 percent of high schools receive Title I funding.) He also reports that black and Latino students are three times more likely than white students to attend one of these high schools, and are only half as likely to attend schools where graduation is nearly a given (schools where only 10 percent of a freshman class is lost by the senior year).

“Large urban school districts in California have become ‘dropout factories,’ ” said Gary Orfield, director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. “The economic and social impacts of this dropout crisis are too enormous for Californians to ignore. The State must make schools accountable for graduating their students and provide resources to help students whose careers would be wrecked by leaving school.”

The conference also featured the work of Julie Mendoza of UC ACCORD, an interdisciplinary, multicampus research center devoted to a more equitable distribution of educational resources and opportunities in California’s diverse public schools and universities. In her work, Mendoza found a 48 percent graduation rate among minority students in Los Angeles, but also discovered that most of the students who do not finish high school leave between the ninth and tenth grades.

In the Los Angeles USD, where 71 percent of students are Latino, only 41 percent of the district’s ninth-grade Latino students stayed in school long enough to reach the twelfth grade. Even if a black, Latino, or American Indian student managed to graduate from high school, the odds are that the high school had not adequately prepared him or her for college. In fact, Mendoza discovered that quite a few high schools in the top ten in graduation rates had large percentages of minority students who did not successfully complete the requirement to enroll in any of the state’s four-year universities.

Top 5 LAUSD High Schools by Minority Graduation Rate

High School Name
Percentage of Minority Ninth Graders, Fall 1999
Percentage of Minority High School Graduates, Spring 2002
Percentage of Minority Graduates Who Are “College-Ready”
Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
Sherman Oaks
Eagle Rock
Bravo Medical Magnet
King/Drew Medial

SourceConfronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California, Harvard University Civil Rights Project.

“California’s failure to graduate so many of its students is a tragic story of wasted human potential and tremendous economic loss,” the report reads. “When high numbers of youth leave school ill-prepared to contribute to our labor force and to civil life, our economy and our democracy suffer. Life opportunities for these youth and for their offspring are dramatically curtailed.”

In addition to the cost in human potential, research from Russell Rumberger of the University of California at Santa Barbara demonstrates that dropouts are an enormous economic loss to the state. But, Rumberger noted, dropouts cost the state in many other ways-through increased welfare, more dependence on public health care, and higher crime and incarceration rates. In fact, 68 percent of all state prison inmates did not graduate from high school. For the 66,657 students that California reported as dropouts in 2002-04, Rumberger estimates that the state will see 1,225 additional state prisoners, spend $73 million in additional incarceration costs, and lose $14 billion in state and national income.

With a national graduation rate of 68 percent and a college readiness rate of 34 percent, according to Jay Greene, no state in the nation is isolated from the crisis that is affecting California’s high schools. Every year, 1.3 million students do not graduate with their peers. That means that every school day our country loses 7,000 students. These young people live in our cities, suburbs, and rural areas, and reflect all income levels.

The Alliance has compiled other state-by-state information, including teachers’ salaries, graduation rates, college readiness, and academic achievement, which is available here 

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.